Whenever a team takes on an opponent as a significant underdog, there’s an assumption that the underdog will need to play a relatively flawless game to pull off the upset. This belief goes double for games on the road in especially hostile environments — like, say, Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wisconsin.
The Washington State Cougars didn’t even come close to playing a flawless game on Saturday against Wisconsin. And they won!
To be honest, I’m still in a little bit of disbelief about the outcome. Not because I can’t believe it happened, but because I can’t believe it happened like that. The Cougs committed three turnovers. They were outgained by nearly 150 yards. The Badgers had a 23-10 advantage in first downs. The Cougars gave away a touchdown at the end of the first half with some comically bad clock management. They also were the victims of really iffy spots by the officials that disrupted more than one drive.
If I had been a Wisconsin fan at Saturday’s game, I’d have walked out of the stadium in a stunned stupor, utterly baffled as to how my team had lost.
Even on the other side, it was so confounding to me, that I — a writer who goes to great lengths to eschew chlichés — called the game “one of the gutsiest performances you’ll ever see,” and also said, “It was the kind of game you expect when you travel to play a Big Ten team: Physical, grinding ... and favoring the team that is the toughest both physically and mentally. On this day, that was Jake Dickert’s WSU Cougars.”
You know who ascribes team success to vague terms such as “guts” and “toughness”? Someone who just doesn’t have an actual explanation. I mean, I’m the guy who usually makes fun of coaches for saying stuff like that! It’s not that the Cougars weren’t gutsy and tough — they certainly were. They were extremely gutsy and extremely tough! It’s just that I usually find such imprecise platitudes to be deeply unsatisfying as an explanation for a particular outcome. And I really like satisfying explanations.
But honestly? I just don’t have much else to offer here in terms of an explanatory narrative. We can definitely identify significant moments that swung the game in WSU’s favor (and we’ll do so in a moment), but that really points to — and I know how much some of you hate this word, so go ahead and brace yourselves now — luck as a bit of a driver of the outcome.
I don’t mean that they fluked their way to a win that they didn’t deserve; it was absolutely not a fluke, and they absolutely deserved it. When I say “lucky,” I simply mean that the Cougars were the beneficiaries of some fortunate sequencing that proved to be the difference between a pair of teams that were pretty evenly matched on the whole — the Badgers gained 5.3 yards per play, the Cougars 5.1. Some examples:
- WSU’s first touchdown came after Wisconsin tried to convert a 4th-and-3 around midfield early in the 2nd quarter. The defense came up with a huge stop, and WSU took advantage of the short field to seize a 7-0 lead. Maybe that wouldn’t have happened, given WSU’s offensive struggles to that point, if Wisconsin had simply punted.
- Early in the third quarter, after WSU was once again set up with a short field after a massive kickoff return by Renard Bell, the Cougs moved down to the Wisconsin 4-yard line and faced 4th-and-1. Dickert boldly kept the offense on the field, employing the kind of high-variance maneuver underdogs often need to succeed, but it never got off the ground because of a false start. Facing 4th-and-6, Dickert instead elected to send out Dean Janikowski, and he drilled the 26-yarder. Maybe WSU scores a TD if they convert ... or maybe they don’t convert and walk away with nothing. Even though it felt like a bit of a missed opportunity to tie the game, those three points ended up being pretty important!
- On their next drive, Cam Ward threw an awful interception that would have given Wisconsin the ball at midfield. Instead, Lincoln Victor made a tremendous play to force a fumble. But that wasn’t the only play that had to be made; WSU also had to recover the ball. Konner Gomness did — even though he didn’t come out of the pile with the ball. Six plays later, Nakia Watson took a dump-off for a touchdown to give the Cougs a 17-14 lead.
- Later, with Wisconsin in the midst of a long drive that was starting to feel like it would inevitably end in a touchdown, defensive tackle Christian Mejia intercepted a tipped pass. Of course, he would fumble it, and Wisconsin would recover it. But on the play, the Badgers would commit a dead ball personal foul penalty, moving them back to their own 35. Two plays later, at the end of a 14-yard gain, there would be another fumble — one that WSU would recover. If that drive starts 15 yards closer to the end zone, Clay Cundiff is near the goal line when he fumbles. Maybe even in it?
I realize this is all theoretical, butterfly effect sort of stuff, and the logic can only go so far. But I’m trying to illustrate the thin margins that led to WSU being able to win this game despite lagging behind in the metrics that usually signal success. And, of course, there’s always an element of making your own luck — both Victor’s and Quinn Roff’s forced fumbles were the result of exceptional hustle.
But hustle doesn’t always pay off. This time it did.
Come to think of it, though ... it sure seems to pay off a lot under Dickert ... and not just through these two games, but also in his interim stint.
“This team, since January, has trusted the process and knew it was going to be different,” Dickert said. “It’s the ‘New Wazzu,’ it’s what we’ve been talking about and what we’ve been working for, to get to this moment. We still have so much out there for us. I’m so proud of that locker room and where they’re at, the trust they have in the coaching staff. Most importantly, they played for each other, and that’s how you win big, tough football games on the road against a very good opponent.”
Call it hustle, grit, toughness, determination ... whatever ... as much as I’d prefer quantifiable explanations, the reality is that those things are important ingredients to success.
“They started to lean on us. They started to do a lot of Wisconsin things,” said Dickert after the game. “The grit (of our players). Keep leaning on each other. It takes one play to keep (their offense) moving, and I think we did a good job of eliminating the explosive plays and make them go the long hard way. Our guys kept fighting.”
We’ve also seen this before.
Mike Leach is known for throwing the ball, but it’s toughness that has always been the hallmark of his programs. He preaches it continually, and when it transformed at WSU — in 2015 — the results transformed: Bouncing back from a 2-2 start that included disappointing losses to Portland State and Cal to win six of their final eight (including heart stoppers on the road against Oregon and UCLA) made it clear that something had changed.
What followed was the longest stretch of sustained success in WSU football history.
Maybe I should quit being so sanctimonious about stuff that I can’t measure and lean hard into what these coaches are saying.
The players sure seem to buy it.
What We Liked: That 5-minute offense
Speaking of Leach, if there was one major criticism of his tenure, it was that his teams seemed to struggle with closing out games, with the blame pie divvied up by fans between the nature of the Air Raid and Leach’s own hubris.
I always felt like those criticisms were overblown; I have no empirical evidence to support this, but I truly don’t think the Cougars blew any more games late because of their philosophy than other teams of their ilk over the years. I will acknowledge, though, that it probably felt that way, given a few of the high-profile meltdowns we endured. No matter how safe the passes are, throwing the ball repeatedly in the game’s final moments will, by nature, be a bit of a high wire act.
While I rarely had strong feelings about Leach’s strategy — you take the bad with the good, you know? — I will absolutely admit that the way the Cougs have run the 5-minute offense in Dickert’s first two games is really impressive.
Before their final drive, the longest the Cougs had held the ball was 3:26 — and that was the series after the huge kickoff where they gained just 18 yards over seven plays. Their next longest drive was 2:22. And they needed to somehow run off 5:14 to keep Wisconsin from touching the ball?
Now, what’s funny to me is that three of the first four plays were passes, as Dickert and offensive coordinator Eric Morris obviously realized that they weren’t likely to have success by just handing the ball off with that much time to go, starting at their own 12.
But after they gave themselves a little breathing room — thanks in no small part to the singular rush in those first four, a heads up play by Cam Ward to pick up a bad snap and bowl his way forward for the first down — they transitioned and did just hand the ball off repeatedly, using five consecutive rushes. They covered only 19 yards, but they forced Wisconsin to use their final two timeouts while running the clock all the way down to just 6 seconds remaining in the game.
The Cougs then went back to the pass. It might have been the best pass I’ve ever seen.
I think what impressed me the most about it was that Dickert and his staff have clearly planned for these late-game scenarios. After watching coach after coach — at both the college and NFL level — fumble through end-of-game management, the Cougars’ preparation is glaringly obvious. They knew exactly what they needed to do in order to run as much time as possible off the clock. And when there was 6 seconds left, they knew the safest way to get that time off the clock.
It’s yet another thing that Dickert has gotten right.
Who Impressed: Interior linemen
My skepticism about the Cougars’ chances in this game came from my assessment of WSU’s interior linemen on both sides of the ball: I didn’t think either side would be able to stand up to the pounding from Wisconsin’s sheer size.
Defensively, WSU’s rotation of defensive tackles did a masterful job of clogging the Badgers’ running lanes and allowing the Cougar linebackers to roam and make plays. I know that what the Cougars are doing right now is drawing comparison to Alex Grinch’s Speed D, but up front, this seems like a little different game than what WSU played back in those days. These guys aren’t disruptors in the mold of Hercules Mata’afa; they’re exceptionally sound gap pluggers — this, despite weighing only about 285 across the board.
They were so freaking good that Wisconsin basically abandoned interior runs for a time, instead trying to hit the edges, which they did successfully for a while. They also went to Chez Mellusi for a bit, seemingly in an effort to hit the holes a little faster. Again, it worked for a bit.
But each time, the WSU defense adjusted and just came back for more. In the 4th quarter, when the Cougs should have been completely gassed and getting gashed by Braelon Allen, they were still stout, as the Badgers could only grab four or five yards at a time. And if you make teams run that many plays, they’ll probably make a mistake somewhere along the line — which is exactly what Wisconsin did.
On offense, the line that terrified me to such a degree heading into the season has actually proven to be at least competent. Nobody would say that Ward had all day to throw behind them, but also, he wasn’t running for his life for three hours. Additionally, nobody would say that the rushing attack was particularly effective against the Badgers, but then again, they were able to generate a push in the fourth quarter when it mattered most.
I don’t know if offensive line will end up being a strength of this team at any point this season, but that’s not what matters here: I was concerned that the line would struggle to a degree that it would torpedo whatever else the team was trying to do. That certainly appears to be completely off the table at this point.
Up Next: Colorado State
When Craig and I went over the schedule in the season preview episode of our podcast, I pointed out that this matchup with Colorado State had all the makings of a trap game, given that it, (A) is sandwiched between Wisconsin and Oregon, and (B) is likely to be lightly attended, since homecoming against Cal follows the weekend after the Ducks.
My worry on that front has approximately tripled in the days since beating the Badgers.
If you want to be optimistic, though, there are a couple of things going for us. For one, the close call against Idaho should be a reminder to the players that they can’t take anyone lightly.
Second: There’s a decent chance that Colorado State is actually worse than Idaho.
The Rams, under new head coach Jay Norvell, are already wobbling. Following an expected pasting at the hands of Michigan in the opener, CSU got absolutely pantsed in their home opener by Middle Tennessee State, 34-19.
HALFTIME: Middle Tennessee 27, Colorado State 0— Tyler King (@King_TylerB) September 10, 2022
Jay Norvell's team is being booed heading into the locker room in the home opener. I couldn't have imagined a worse first 30 minutes of play here.
“We have to respond the same way (as MTSU did after its loss),” Norvell said. “We have to respond with pride and playing a little harder. … I don’t want to speak before I watch all of the film, but we obviously didn’t get enough of that from some kids.”
Teams come back from that sort of embarrassment one of two ways. Let’s hope it’s the bad way.
For what it’s worth, it’s also probably a benefit that CSU runs a version of the Air Raid itself, something our defense will be well versed in defending. CSU’s offensive line also was extremely leaky against MTSU, giving up nine(!) sacks to bring their total to 16 sacks against in just two games.
Still ... this one scares the pants off me. Here’s to hoping Dickert is able to sell the opportunity that is in front of them to build on the Wisconsin win heading into Oregon, rather than giving back the advantage they created with that victory.
Kickoff is at 2 p.m. PT (GLORIOUS!!) from Gesa Field, with Pac-12 Networks carrying the broadcast.